Artificial photosynthesis can grow plants without light — and may solve a planetary dilemma

Plus: Robotic limbs can feel real.

Space aesthetic vibe illustration, surreal scene with tropical flowers, technology from the past ins...

Global food demand is a global dilemma. Over the past century, the world population has quadrupled. Food demand is expected to grow between 59 to 98 percent by 2050, yet it may not be possible for the planet to keep up.

Food production is limited by the rate of photosynthesis, the mechanism by which plants transform sunlight, water, and gas into the biomass that we, and other creatures on Earth, eat. Unfortunately, this mechanism is incredibly inefficient — only 1 percent of energy from sunlight reaches plants and crops, meaning the world will struggle to produce enough food at scale.

To feed the planet, the future of farming may depend on a new innovation: Artificial photosynthesis — which enables plants to grow without sunlight.

HORIZONS explores the innovations of today that will shape the world of tomorrow. This is an adapted version of the June 27 edition. Forecast the future by signing up for free.

What’s new — In a study published last week in the journal Nature Food, researchers describe a system for artificial photosynthesis that could lead to more energy-efficient food production. Contrary to what we know about photosynthesis, this process wouldn’t need light.

Crops are only able to convert a minuscule amount of sunlight into plant biomass and energy. Because of this, huge plots of farmland are needed to produce enough food for the planet’s growing number of humans and livestock. This not only raises sustainability concerns but also points to the natural limitations in global food production. Not all regions and climates are created equally. Crops may grow better in some parts of the world than others.

“A paradigm change in how we feed people could result from the use of artificial photosynthesis.

Scientists believe that artificial photosynthesis may mitigate some of these challenges. Because the new system does not depend on sunlight or weather, food could be grown in controlled environments, even in regions of the world with inhospitable climates.

Also, the researchers found that artificial photosynthesis is 18 times more energy-efficient than its biological counterpart, making for more sustainable agriculture overall.

How they did it — To grow plants without sunlight, researchers created a hybrid inorganic–biological system for food production. They first used a two-step electrocatalytic process to convert carbon dioxide, electricity, and water into a semi-synthetic material called acetate. Then, in the dark, they fed plants the acetate.

Experiments revealed that a variety of food-producing organisms, including green algae, yeast, and mushrooms, could be grown in the dark using acetate. Crop plants, too, may be able to feed on acetate. Rice, lettuce, and tomatoes could, in the future, be farmed more efficiently without sunlight than with it.

Artificial photosynthesis may be a more efficient way to meet food production demand.


The technique is “a paradigm change in how we feed people could result from the use of artificial photosynthesis techniques,” said study author Robert Jinkerson.

“As food production becomes more efficient, less land is required, reducing the environmental effect of agriculture.”

Read the study.

On the horizon...

WWYD with three or four arms?


A cyborg is a being with both organic and robotic parts. Now, researchers suggest that having the latter may feel more natural than we think.

In a new study published in the journal Scientific Reports, scientists from the University of Tokyo, Keio University, and Toyohashi University of Technology gave human beings third and fourth robotic arms in a virtual environment. In the end, the participants reported feeling like the extra limbs were part of their biological bodies.

This sensation in virtual reality, known as “embodiment,” describes the moment when a user’s experience becomes so immersive that it is indistinguishable from their virtual body.

The study results expand our understanding of what is cognitively possible. Yes, humans can feel agency over a body with four arms or six fingers — even if those body types do not typically exist.

Find out more.

See it to believe it

Six views of the minerals on Mars.


Captured by the Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars, or CRISM, one of the instruments aboard NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, this multicolored 5.6-gigapixel map reveals the distribution of dozens of key minerals on the Red Planet.

CRISM has been looking for mineralogical evidence of water that once existed on Mars billions of years ago. It works by capturing images in hundreds of different colors — or wavelengths — of reflected visible and infrared light.

CRISM, explained.

T-minus the internet…

5. Check how roasted your coffee beans are using this smartphone app. Researchers from King Mongkut’s University of Technology Thonburi created a machine learning model to evaluate bean quality, Tech Xplore explains.

4. Swamps could help us stave off climate change — if we let them. The New Yorker reports on how bogs, which are natural carbon sinks, help cleanse the Earth.

3. DALL-E Mini is the hottest meme maker on the internet, reports WIRED. The A.I.-image generation app has been serving up more than 50,000 (very strange) sights daily.

2. With the help of micro-algae, cement goes carbon neutral. Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder are developing a building material that may change the future.

1. CAPSTONE, the first part of NASA’s Artemis moon program, may launch this week. The New York Times explains why it is a mission unlike any other.

Beyond the horizon…

Here comes that 5G.

Kennedy Space Center

A SpaceX Falcon 9 will launch from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Wednesday, June 29, at 5:04 p.m. Eastern. The rocket will deliver the SES-22 communications satellite into orbit, which will deliver television and data service across the United States. Look out for updates on the Kennedy Space Center page.

This has been HORIZONS, a newsletter that explores the innovations of today shaping the world of tomorrow.

Do you think it can be improved? Have a story idea? Send your tips and all other musings to horizons@inverse.com

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